To Call Myself Beloved - Eina McHugh on a Very Personal Memoir

Following the bombing of her family home during the Troubles, Eina McHugh spent years in therapy. Her new memoir details a very personal journey

The years of the Troubles claimed many victims – over 3,000 fatalities and, in addition, a multitude of individuals condemned to live forever with the effects of terrible injuries, memories and experiences.

Many incidents were so minor in the greater scheme of things that they did not warrant a single line of media coverage, leaving those directly involved feeling abandoned and invisible, with no option but to pick up the pieces and soldier on unaided.

At the time, therapy and counselling services were neither widely available nor acknowledged, Hence, decades frequently elapsed before those damaged in the fall-out were in a position to seek professional help in easing them through the trauma of the past.

Eina McHugh, founding director of Cinemagic Film Festival, Fulbright Scholar and director of The Ark, the children's cultural centre in Dublin, was on the cusp of womanhood when a bomb placed outside a County Tyrone police station shattered her family home, which was situated directly opposite.

Her parents had worked hard to build their dream house, with extensive gardens and a tennis court, only to see it hit again and again by successive terrorist attacks.

The first and most devastating explosion occurred on the day of McHugh's first menstrual period, precipitating a double-edged nightmare that would cause her long-lasting torment.

Her parents' decision not to move the family to safety, and the devastating effects of the violence on her adult sexuality, were issues which constantly returned to haunt her. But it was not until the age of 27 that McHugh took the first tentative steps towards employing the services of a personally recommended professional psychotherapist.

She has now written an extraordinarily honest and revealing personal account of those nine long years of rigorous, frequently painful self-examination, which eventually led her to feel truly loved and affirmed as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a woman.

In To Call Myself Beloved, McHugh pushes the door wide open into her most private inner space, ruthlessly examining her own inconsistencies and contradictions, detailing her burgeoning, confusing emotions directed towards her therapist and her despairing attempts at forming physical relationships with men.

For many who knew this outwardly successful, sunny, sweet-natured woman during the years of her therapy, such dark revelations may come as a shock. But, as McHugh readily admits, therein lies the rub.

'It wasn't that people didn't know me, but that I didn't choose to show that side of myself. In the meantime, a whole inner life was gradually revealing itself even to me. Sometimes in therapy you need to keep a private space. Now, of course, I've gone to the complete other extreme, by publishing a book about something so deeply personal.

'I put a lot of energy into my professional life and in many ways that was very helpful. Doing something meaningful made me feel needed. It kept me anchored, it gave me an outlet and a means of expression for myself. And it made me feel loved. But in other parts of my mind I felt troubled, and they were much more difficult to deal with.'

When McHugh started looking into the area of therapy, she could find no book that had been written from the patient’s perspective. There were plenty by professional therapists, but they tended to be theoretical, erudite and clinical in tone, intended mainly for consumption by their peers.

Such books, McHugh discovered, did not reflect the subtle complexity of feelings and emotions, the colour spectrum experienced by the person baring his or her soul, either in individual therapeutic encounters or group sessions.

The idea of publishing her own account of the process emerged slowly and after much soul-searching. Over the years, McHugh had kept detailed notes of sessions, particularly those which she had found most helpful, and had written hundreds of letters in shorthand to herself.

Then, in the summer of 2000, a project in which she had been involved fell through and an unexpected space opened up. Tentatively she wondered if this might just be the moment to start putting her thoughts and notes into a more formal shape.

'I went back to a little family-run hotel in Cyprus, where I had recently spent a holiday,' McHugh recalls. 'Walking along the beach, going through my higgledy piggledy notes and letters, looking back and reflecting, I felt the calling out of the writer in me.

'But I recognised that writing the whole book would be a huge challenge, not least because, let's face it, I am not always showing myself in a great light. Above all, it would be about being totally honest, about approaching the subject with rigour and authenticity.'

McHugh was also acutely aware of the sensibilities and vulnerability of others involved in her journey – her parents, her siblings, her therapist, her fellow group members. Confidentiality was absolute and forever and, at no point, does she give any clues as to the identities of either her therapist – referred to simply as J – nor the trusted members of her group.

In the sunshine of Cyprus, she began writing and the words flowed. As the first draft began to come together, McHugh decided to send an extract to an editor, a person whom she had not and still has not ever met. Among his useful comments, he voiced a concern that she had assigned direct speech to her therapist and questioned whether she had obtained his permission to do so.

'He was absolutely right to be concerned, of course,' she reflects. 'So I sent him the first chapter and spent an agonising few days waiting for his response. I promised that if it was taken up by a publisher, I would let him see the full draft before publication.

'He got back to me, saying, "Go on. I think you have a wonderful book to write". The fear of hurting was still holding me back but, again, the writer in me had shaped me and I now very much wanted to find a reader.'

Having acquired an agent, McHugh had one last vital call to make – to her mother, a retired schoolteacher with whom, over the years, she had not had the closest of relationships. With her beloved father now seriously ill with Alzheimer's disease, her mother's endorsement had become all the more crucial.

'I wanted to give my mother the opportunity to read the manuscript. Clearly the subject matter would have been difficult and painful for her. But especially considering that she was such a devout, traditional Catholic, her reaction was amazing. She said, "I'm not going to read it, but you go on".

'She said that if it would make me happy, she was not going to stand in my way. In an incredible act of love and generosity, she recognised how important it was to me. In that moment, I knew I was going to publish. My mother died in 2009, but her blessing is something that I will always treasure.'

At the end of this remarkable, lyrical memoir comes the final endorsement of McHugh’s courageously sought-after turning of the key. And here too is to be found the title of her book, taken from 'Late Fragment', a favourite poem by Raymond Carver.

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

To Call Myself Beloved by Eina McHugh is published by New Island, price €12.99.